The Symbolic Use of Women

Does this picture actually help Muslim women? Or does it simply reproduce the same orientalist discourse of the eternally oppressed Muslim woman who is covered & treated like trash by her culture/religion/men? Yet again, women's bodies being used to make a point about the Other.

I have always found it difficult, intellectually, to draw the line between resistance & independence. For example, if one argues that the rise of Islamism and conservatism in the Middle East is a reaction to colonialism, neo-colonialism, and westernization, does this take away all agency from Middle Eastern people to shape their own future? Does this mean that what happens in the Middle East is purely a reaction to outside forces? I have always secretly believed that Islamism IS a reaction to (forced) westernization, but have felt uncomfortable saying it because it almost renders people in the Middle East powerless. It’s like saying, yes we got rid of our colonial powers but they’re pretty much still shaping everything we do. Which is true at many levels *cough* neoliberal capitalism *cough* but is it useful as a generalization?

To take Egypt as an example, it is clear that the past 40-50 years have seen increasing social conservatism, spurred mainly by the rising prominence of Islamism and Islamic organizing. A major reason for why I believe Islamists are reacting to westernization is because of the kinds of discourses they use and the issues they focus on – issues that have basically been used by the west consistently to show how backwards and primitive Muslim societies are. The number one issue here is, of course, WOMEN.

There is nothing new in using women as a cultural battleground.Women have regularly been used as symbols that signify and reproduce nations, cultures and religions; and the norms and values that constitute these. When the French colonized Algeria, for example, they used the status of women (as if it is a homogenous fact) to “prove” how backwards and uncivilized Algerian (read: Muslim) culture was, and therefore justify their civilizing mission. The fact that (some) women were covered, for example, supposedly showed the need for the French to liberate them – a discourse that actually still exists in France today when you see their laws re. the burqa.

The Algerian freedom fighters manipulated this French assumption by using women to carry weapons. Since the French assumed that women were passive, they did not check them thoroughly at checkpoints. This allowed many women to smuggle weapons to the freedom fighters because of a stereotype the French had about them and Algerian cultural in general. So again, we see Algerian men using stereotypes about Algerian women for their own benefit (although one could argue that Algerian independence was a struggle both Algerian men and women supported & fought for).

We see a similar battle over women and women’s bodies in today’s western mainstream media, particularly in efforts to demonize Muslims/Arabs. Women are consistently used to show how progressive & modern Europe/America are, either by images of them wearing a bikini/underwear/miniskirts/as little as possible, or with statistics that show how emancipated women are because they work/earn money (or have been sucked into another oppressive structure known as capitalism). Not only does this create the discourse of women in the west being “free”, which is far from the truth; it also simultaneously creates the discourse of women who do not look like western women or act like western women as backwards. Once this discourse is created, it is then taken to represent other cultures in general: women in the Middle East cover their hair because they are oppressed by culture/religion/etc.

Campaign poster for a far-right political party in Switzerland, using women's bodies to delineate civilized Europe from the backwards Muslim world.

Today we see many Islamists using women as well. Symbols related to gender have started to signify resistance to western imperialism. This is clear in the various discourses they use. Women must be conservative, remain pure and untouched, because they represent the nation in particular and Islam in general. Any laws or movements that are seen as trying to  “liberate” women are usually branded as western and imperialistic, and therefore must be crushed. While it is true that many women’s movements in the ME *are* western and imperial, it is useless to categorize them all this way.

Islamists showing the difference between a veiled woman and an unveiled woman, thus using women & their bodies to make a point about what they see as "Islamic morality."

In both cases, it is not women’s best interests that are at heart. When an American magazine prints a picture of a woman wearing a bikini and reproduces the discourse that the less a woman wears, the more liberated she is, it is not doing this out of a genuine concern for women or women’s issues. Similarly, when an Islamists wants to “protect” women from immoral behaviour and maintain their purity, they are not doing this out of a concern for women, but rather because of bigger religious and national interests/beliefs. Either way, women lose.

We lose because it is always decided for us what liberation or oppression means. It is never a choice. Women who cover their hair in the Netherlands are seen as oppressed by their own culture/religion/men; and women who wear miniskirts in Cairo are seen as oppressed by consumerism and a culture obsessed with women’s bodies & sex. And within these binary discourses, how free are we, as women, to choose what we want to wear, be, think, feel, or do?

This is complicated even more if you are a non-white woman, because then it is not only patriarchal men trying to decide for you and using you to make their point; it is also patriarchal/colonial women (sometimes they even call themselves feminists) who are trying to manipulate and use you. Did Laura Bush *really* want to help Afghan women when she argued that that was one of the primary motivations for invading Afghanistan? Or was she just stupid enough to somehow think that (1) wearing a burqa automatically means you are oppressed and (2) bombing the hell out of you will somehow get read of sais oppression? Or is it more likely that she was simply yet another tool used by Empire to achieve their goals; and in the process of her becoming a tool, she in turn used other women – in this case women in Afghanistan (who are of course one homogenous group).

As a woman, you have to always be alert when you hear someone say they want to “liberate” you. Do they really have your best interests at heart? Are they really trying to understand your situation and context? Or is it just another case of someone using women to make a point/justify a war/fulfill some religious commandment?

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9 thoughts on “The Symbolic Use of Women

  1. miloflamingo

    As a 63 year old woman whose body is most certainly not like the girls in the lake, I find the pressure to show off one’s body much more irritating than the pressure to hide it. In the interests of public safety, I would not appear in public wearing just sand. The fact is, everyone is pushing women to meet stereotypes. Look at all the plasticised actresses who are trying to look young while the geezer actors just look “distinguished”. Case in point, Goldie Hawn vs Donald Sutherland.

    1. “I find the pressure to show off one’s body much more irritating than the pressure to hide it.”

      This is how so many women I talk to feel!

  2. Ali

    This is such a great piece, thank you very much for posting it! Women always seem to be caught in this kind of tug-of-war between powers, and it is interesting to note how people on both sides are so strongly indoctrinated in their beliefs.

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